The Tomb Restorers

The architects and craftsmen who helped revive the glory of Humayun’s Tomb.

Written by Ruchika Talwar | New Delhi | Published: October 6, 2013 5:58 am

The architects and craftsmen who helped revive the glory of Humayun’s Tomb.

At first sight,the kitchen equipment at Humayun’s Tomb belies the scale and complexity of the restoration of the Unesco World Heritage Site. But when you see the glory of the restored Mughal monument,which was thrown open to the public on September 18,you realise that a pateela,thaali,hamaam-dasta,sil-batta,chakki and dosa batter grinder can be used for purposes other than just culinary.

These utensils were used to give a fresh lease of life to the mausoleum of Humayun,the second Mughal emperor. A lot of the equipment used was quite primitive. Like the lime wheel — a huge churn (operated by camels or oxen back in the day) that mixes lime with sand to make lime mortar,used as a binding agent by the Mughal school of architecture instead of the cement that is used today. “This is exactly how the Mughals constructed and beautified their buildings. They used chakkis and sil-battas and lime wheels,” says Ratish Nanda,project director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) which undertook the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb with the help of Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The work which was done in two stages — first undoing the 20th century damage,then doing the restoration — took six years,from 2007 to 2013. “We added nothing from our imagination. Conservation ends where imagination begins,” says Nanda.

If the Taj Mahal is poetry in white marble,its prototype,the Humayun’s Tomb is no less than poetry in red sandstone offset by white marble. Two features set this monument apart from the Taj,its younger but more famous cousin. First,the contrast in colour and second,the detailing in the plasterwork of the recessed arches on the facade that can be noticed from a distance. This plasterwork is a craft lost to modern-day India. They call it “incised plaster”.

In order to approximate such bygone craft,the AKTC scouted for masons and other traditional artisans. Amrik Chauhan,31,who came as a mistri from Lakhisarai in Bihar,became a “plaster designer” at Humayun’s Tomb,a “master craftsman” who,with 25 other masons,redid the incised plasterwork in the mausoleum’s many arches and the insides of the central white marble dome. Earlier,Chauhan worked with lime plaster on a reservoir in Lakhisarai,and then on a construction project overseen by Rajpal Singh,who was a contractor before he joined AKTC as chief engineer. “Amrik is our Man Friday. When I run out of people to do ‘anything’,I give him a call,” says Singh.

Incising plaster is like incising the epidermis,the surface of the skin,as done by a plastic surgeon. Literally,slitting the surface. Chauhan scooped out the white lime plaster from a surface using an instrument resembling a surgeon’s scalpel to recreate the design that had been lost to the vagaries of human neglect and nature. These incisions were then filled with colours (red,green and blue) to recreate the floral designs and Quranic verses by craftsmen like Tarun,a shy lad who refuses to speak much about himself.

While Chauhan and Tarun may be skilled artisans without the backing of a training certificate to have worked on the tomb,Chhuttan Lal Meena,30,has a Masters in Fine Arts from Delhi’s prestigious College of Art. As an art conservator with AKTC,Meena,who hails from Dausa,Rajasthan,gave life and colour back to what looked like peeling plaster. Earlier,Meena was a conservator of old paintings and had worked on ASI projects at Shri Guru Ram Rai Darbar in Dehradun and the Tipu Sultan Museum at Srirangapatna,Karnataka.

Five hundred years ago,stone craftsmen brought out the red-and-white contrast in Humayun’s Tomb. Today,the hard work of 52-year-old Attar Singh and his team have helped revive that lost glory. Hailing from Rajasthan’s Dholpur,famous for its stone and craftsmanship,Singh has helped recreate the magic of an era gone by. “We did two types of work on stone: dressing and carving. Slabs of red sandstone were chiselled to even out the surface and also reduce slipperiness for flooring. This is dressing. Carving involved cutting out intricate patterns on white marble and red sandstone slabs into jaalis,” Singh says,as he shows the stencils made on aluminium sheets by the likes of Divya Nandini,a young conservation architect at AKTC. “The application of architectural know-how is our job. Typically,we measure and map the designs from the original and turn them into aluminium stencils using plotters. This is a technical task. Implementing these designs is craftsmanship,” says Nandini as she shows us around the stone workshop. One big jaali can take several weeks to get ready. “AKTC’s philosophy is about employment generation and conservation-architecture over engineering architecture. The latter ruined this monument. We inherited a mutilated monument,where cement had been used to seal cracks,which was terrible. It caused water seepage and other damages to the structure. Around one million kg of concrete had to be manually removed before we could get to the bottom of the monument,” rues Nanda.

The bright blue-green chhatris on the terrace are the piece de resistance of Humayun’s Tomb. Uzbek tile makers were flown in to teach Abdul Hafeez,Mohammad Asif,Khustar Ali,Mohammad Imran,Vakil and Shoaib Abbas to make glazed tiles,as was done by the Mughals. Vakil worked with a telecom company and installed internet connections,Ali stitched curtains for a five-star hotel,Asif,Abbas and Hafeez were school dropouts and Imran a motor mechanic before they joined the tomb’s restoration project. They all live across the road at Nizamuddin Basti,and learnt about a tile workshop held by AKTC through the self-help groups working in their area. “There was a language barrier between us and them. I played the interpreter,” says Saroj Kumar Pandey,34,who holds a Masters degree in conservation from the Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management,and was an art conservator with ASI before joining AKTC. “Getting the turquoise colour right was a huge challenge. We conducted almost 3,000 tests till we realised we were using the wrong chemical,” Pandey says with a laugh.

Salahuddin,who supervises the tile making,came after the Uzbek teachers had left but his BSc in Chemistry explains in retrospect why using cobalt couldn’t give the turquoise results. “Copper oxide will impart turquoise,” he says. If you want to make green glazed Mughal tiles,get a chakki and grind copper with borax spirit,quartz powder and stannic oxide. Then measure water in a beaker and dissolve the mixture in a hamaam-dasta. Pour the solution into a thaali,dip a baked tile into it and put it in the kiln. And voila! Mughal-style tiles,fresh out of the oven for a World Heritage Site are ready.

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